Back in August, when I asked readers to suggest their favorite cheap dining destinations, two proposed the exact same spot: the Van Dorn Station shopping center in south Alexandria, an L-shaped commercial strip with a separate building situated in the parking lot, like a lost diacritical mark. The center’s sidewalks offer an Epcot-esque tour of international cuisines, minus the fiberglass pagodas and landscaped Yucatan jungle.
The storefronts here solicit the hungry with promises of Vietnamese soups, Afghan kabobs, Thai curries, Ethiopian stews, Indonesian satays and other flavors from around this blue marble we call home. Tyler Cowen, the noted economist and chowhound, calls Van Dorn Station “[o]ne of Northern Virginia’s premier strip malls for food.” How much more encouragement does one need? I already have motivation enough as I scour the area for the best neighborhoods, streets, shopping centers and markets for the $20 Diner’s debut cheap-eats guide, set for early next year.
Despite its multi-culti cred with the Cowen crowd, Van Dorn Station is not immune to the cross-contamination that can infect metro eateries. My first stop here was a classic case Latin American misdirection: In large white-and-lime-green letters on its facade, El Paraiso II bills itself as a Tex-Mex joint, even though you can see via old Google street views that the place previously had no Lone Star State connection. The restaurant’s DNA is Salvadoran, and its earnest-but-fumbling attempts to prepare Tejano dishes would make a Texan cry Velveeta tears.
Then again, I had been warned by reader Chris Jewell that El Paraiso was “terrible.” Both Jewell and another reader, Gary Ezard, were unanimous in their praise for Thai Lemon Grass, a sunny corner establishment with floral displays and contemplative Buddha statuary. Both have been frequenting the restaurant for years and have developed favorites from a menu that balances Thai standards with what sounds like Thai takes on American dishes, such as a pan-fried New York strip steak with a ginger-and-fermented-black-bean sauce.
Chris was out of town when I e-mailed, which meant that Gary and I were on our own for lunch at Thai Lemon Grass. A native of Lancaster County, Pa., Gary is a freelance video editor who was introduced to the restaurant about seven years ago by a buddy, Art Nikolaev. Gary figures that he and his friends have frequented Thai Lemon Grass at least 20 times, far outnumbering their visits to any other eatery at Van Dorn Station.
One of Gary’s go-to dishes is the yum nua, a salad in name only. The appetizer’s precious few iceberg leaves are dogpiled by strips of flank steak, which are tossed with a spicy lime dressing. To this preparation, Gary spoons on a tabletop condiment, a variation on the traditional prik dong or chili peppers in vinegar. The condiment, a blended amalgam of peppers, garlic and vinegar, turbocharges the beef into something hot and sour and altogether satisfying.
Gary doesn’t consider himself a hothead, his approach to yum nua notwithstanding. So it was with some hesitancy that I wondered if Thai Lemon Grass had a separate menu for those who hanker for traditional Thai dishes. Gary didn’t know; he had never inquired. When I asked the waitress, a friendly apple-cheeked native of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, she acted slightly perplexed, as if trying to prevent two white dudes from wandering too deep into the jungle. She mother-henned us even further when we started ordering from the separate “Classic Thai Menu,” steering us away from the Thai-hot preparations. I adored her.
Open since 1990, Thai Lemon Grass still plays by the old rules: an Americanized Thai menu for latecomers to the cuisine, and a second one for Thai natives who want a taste of home. The latter menu is “only for people who know we have it,” says Pilasinee Tiraphiensakul, the second-generation owner of the restaurant. It’s as if Thai Lemon Grass’s location has isolated it from recent shifts in big-city dining, where places such as Little Serow, Soi 38 and Baan Thai refuse to flavor-profile customers before they even sit down.
The truth is, I’d rather order from the Classic Thai Menu, not just because I consider myself curious but because Americanized Thai food, while comforting in its own way, is no longer what I crave. Once your palate has been stretched, it doesn’t retract to its old form. So while I thought Gary’s pan-fried pork in a roasted-garlic-and-white-pepper sauce was tasty and surprisingly potent, I nearly got the vapors over the Thai hot pot from the secret menu; the sour soup with shrimp and vegetables radiated fish sauce and heat, just tempting you to dive right in. The country-style beef curry with eggplant, bamboo shoots and green beans, which we ordered Thai spicy, would make a lizard sweat.
Gary informs me that his nose is running. He’s not complaining. I think he’s embracing the masochistic pleasures of Thai cuisine.
Other delights are far easier to find at Van Dorn Station. Kabul Kabob House, with the bright yellow “under new management” sign in the window, serves mouthwatering ground-beef kubideh and lamb kebabs, all charred and tender, lounging on glistening Afghan-style rice. As its name suggests, Pho Viet Flare exhibits plenty of style, and it produces a decent bowl of Vietnamese beef soup, more aromatic than luxuriant. Azewa Market can mix a mean mound of Ethiopian-spiced ground beef, known as kitfo, but its shiro tegabino, a creamy stew of reconstituted chickpea powder studded with sliced jalapenos, proves more complex and startling.
What’s more, there are still cuisines to explore at Van Dorn Station: Akasaka, a Japanese sushi and teriyaki house; Satay Sarinah, an Indonesian shop that had a “closed for renovation” sign hanging on its door one day (but appears to be open now); and Savio’s, a baroque-looking Italian restaurant with a classic red-sauce menu. In short, the shopping center looks like a prime candidate for the $20 Diner’s cheap-eats neighborhood guide. But who knows? The hunt has just begun, and I have many more tips to pursue.
Do you have a favorite strip mall or street that’s similarly dotted with good, budget-minded fare? Find me on Twitter at @timcarman or e-mail me at email@example.com
508 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria.
Nearest Metro: Van Dorn, with a 1-mile walk to the center.